Teaching in China: A Guide for the Uninitiated

What activities get my students to talk?

Ah, now that discussion of the “concepts” involved is out of the way, we’re really getting down to the meat. What should you do in class? Really, it doesn’t matter. Just keep in mind: to improve your students’ spoken English, you must get them to talk. If you adhere to this principle, it’s pretty hard to go wrong. Let your imagination run wild. Your students will make progress, you’ll have more fun, and the entire field of TEFL stands to benefit.

That said, there are some standard “spoken English class activities” that I’d like to sort of “review” here. Note that never do I say “you should use this activity” or “you shouldn’t use this activity.” You should just keep in mind the advantages and disadvantages of each kind to get the most out of them, possibly creating your own variations to maximize advantages and minimize disadvantages. Any of these activities could be a huge success for you.


I’ll admit, I’m a bit biased against doing songs in class because I can’t sing. Chinese students are always asking me to sing (and they’ll do the same to you!), and I always refuse them. They don’t realize that by refusing to sing I’m acting in the interests of all involved. Even if I’m not the one singing, though, students love to hear English songs.

  • Advantages: (1) Inhibitions can be significantly reduced by song, producing never before seen levels of enthusiasm. (2) Songs often provide good vocabulary.
  • Disadvantages: (1) Singing is not equivalent to talking, and song lyrics are not equivalent to actual speech. (2) A lot of time will be spent passively listening or imitating, neither of which are skills necessary for producing original speech (i.e. talking, what you’re trying to teach!).


Students love movies. Rarely will you get any complaints for showing movies in class. Finding an appropriate (in all senses of the word) movie may be difficult, however. Still, it’s almost a given that it will be a hit. (Recommendations: Big, Rat Race)

  • Advantages: (1) Students are enthusiastic about movies, even when the subtitles are in English, not Chinese. (No subtitles is pretty much not an option.) (2) Movies provide natural dialog and lots of good vocabulary.
  • Disadvantages: (1) The activity is almost completely passive. Even if the movie leads to questions, discussion, or new vocabulary, they spend a lot of time just watching. (2) Without subtitles, comprehension is almost hopeless for most movies. When subtitles are there, students all but ignore the actual words the characters speak. Thus listening comprehension becomes reading comprehension, which is not a skill involved in spoken English. (3) Dialog in movies is usually quite natural, which is good. The problem is that it’s so natural that students can’t follow its speed, speech patterns, and vocabulary. That can be very discouraging to them. (4) The amount of unfamiliar vocabulary in a movie can be overwhelming, and even if definitions for all new words are given, in the context of the movie the students’ word recognition will often not be fast enough.


Games are fun, pretty much by definition. If you play a game, your students will probably like it. It’s better than sitting there and doing nothing right? Chances are, yes, probably! There are a lot of games out there, though.

  • Advantages: (1) Games can provide a fun atmosphere for learning that helps material “stick.” (2) Games (or even “pseudo-games”) can almost magically create enthusiasm for the material, especially if it’s a competitive game and there’s a prize involved.
  • Disadvantages: (1) Overuse of games can create unrealistic expectations of spoken English class as “playtime.” (2) Some games really do very little to help students practice speaking English (e.g. charades, hangman). (3) When students get excited, they often start speaking Chinese, regardless of how simple the English involved in the game is.


It’s pretty natural for the teacher to sometimes just take time to talk to the students, organized activities aside. It goes without saying that it shouldn’t be the only class activity.

  • Advantages: (1) Natural conversation develops rapport and helps students relax. (2) Students get opportunities to talk to their teacher one-on-one about anything. (3) Serves as a good “filler” activity for the teacher.
  • Disadvantages: (1) Many students will not have much to say, so if the activity succeeds at all, the teacher will probably end up doing most of the talking. (2) Even when the students do the talking, they can only do so one at a time. (3) The teacher will come across as unprepared if this activity is used too often.


Discussion is potentially one of the best activities for spoken English class because participation directly accomplishes the teacher’s goal: the students have to talk in a quite natural context!

  • Advantages: (1) Students can have exchanges in English in a natural way. (2) Students can easily be broken into groups to increase the amount of talking. (3) Good for controlled practice of new vocabulary.
  • Disadvantages: (1) Students will often refuse to talk. (2) Finding a good discussion topic is critical. Bad topics will completely bomb. Asking students for topic ideas is of surprisingly little help. (3) Discussions often put students into a “formal mode,” counteracting the relaxed atmosphere you worked hard to build. (4) Students often go into “question-answer mode,” missing the point of a discussion. (5) It’s very easy for the teacher to completely take the stage in the discussion. (6) When the topic is good, students’ desire to communicate their ideas can result in them speaking Chinese.


Debates are similar to discussions, with the added interesting factor of necessary disagreement.

  • Advantages: (1) Students can have exchanges in English in a natural way. Debate can also arouse passions which result in more speaking. (2) Students can easily be broken into groups to increase the amount of talking. (3) Good for controlled practice of new vocabulary.
  • Disadvantages: (1) Students will often refuse to talk, or be unable to argue their side’s stance. (2) Finding a good debate topic is critical. (3) When the topic is good, students’ desire to communicate their ideas can result in them speaking Chinese. (4) A proper debate structure is extremely hard to preserve. (5) Small groups are hard to keep organized and orderly, but in large groups fewer people do the actual talking.


Skits can be an incredibly fun way to practice using English in situations which the students would never actually encounter in real life. (When else will your students have the opportunity to say things like, “freeze or I’ll shoot!” or “only the kiss of a real princess will change me into a human being again?”) When doing skits, students should not be holding a script. They should keep it simple enough to remember.

  • Advantages: (1) Students can get very involved and enthusiastic. (2) All sorts of situations can be enacted, which also lends itself well to practice of new vocabulary. (3) All students must be involved.
  • Disadvantages: (1) Actual performance of the skits is very passive for the rest of the class. (2) Some students will “steal the show,” doing most of the talking. (3) Some students will be nervous, reducing the speaking ability. (4) Significant preparation time is necessary, which is usually all in Chinese. (5) Chinese students are sometimes lacking in imagination, making the skits amazingly dull.

There are, of course, endless possibilities for classroom activities. Those are the classics that I’m going to mention here, though.

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